The vaccine apartheid: A long history in the making

By: Foluke Adebisi, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol

Image Credit: openDemocracy

An earlier post on this blog, argues that by failing to waive the Covid vaccine patent, the Global North has failed the Global South. This argument resonates with our Rich Law, Poor Law workshops on race, in which we consider how the artificed category of ‘race’ has been used [historically and contemporarily] as the fundamental technology to abstract property out of manufactured identity traits and thus as a tool for the accumulation of capital. We also examine specifically how this process creates the significant demarcation between what we now designate the Global North and Global South. This demarcation is marked by a substantial material distinction between life conditions in these two disparate zones. Boaventura de Sousa Santos tells us that these two zones are divided by an abyssal line, which is produced by abyssal thinking – a form of thinking of the world that legitimately ‘disappears’ what exists beyond or beneath the line.  

GN/GS divide

Teaching race, law and necropolitical worlds

To enable us to make this analysis in our classes, we start with the concept of ‘race’ itself. We critically reflect on Grosfoguel’s writings which define racism as ‘a global hierarchy of superiority and inferiority along the line of the human that have been politically, culturally and economically produced and reproduced for centuries by the institutions of the “capitalist/patriarchal western-centric/Christian-centric modern/colonial world-system.”’ We use this to disrupt the conventional understanding of race as a neutral, biologic, and legitimate classification of humanity. Thus, we understand law, race, and racism as actually co-constitutive. In other words, the very idea that races ‘exist’ operates on ideas of hierarchy and hegemony to serve purposes of accumulation and dispossession.

Then we move on to the concept of property itself – how we identify what property can be accumulated or appropriated, how real property has been acquired and how who can be dispossessed of their property and humanity was identified historically.  We then explore how this historical process over a long period of time has created these stark binaries between the rich world and the poor world – what we call the Global South and the Global North. To aid in our understanding of this process, we use readings such as Jason Hickel’s The Divide, Brenna Bhanda’s Colonial Lives of Property, and her discourse on abstraction. We also take a closer look at John Locke’s labour theory of property where he posits an improvement theory of original acquisition of private property. Criticisms of John Locke’s labour theory of property are also explored. Sarah Keenan for example, argues that this theory of property acquisition relies on hierarchies of humanity that ‘unrecognise’, racially, indigenously, and temporarily distinct [non]property formations and modes of property use/acquisition and thus through abyssal thinking unrecognise humanity. Quiggin also points out the broad theoretical inconsistencies in Locke’s scholarship. We then examine the continuities of these epistemologies in development discourse, contemporary inequalities and belonging-ness in space and time.

Racial capitalism and inequalities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Global Vaccine Access

As we enter a world profoundly marked by a global pandemic and further starkly divided by what is often referred to as a ‘vaccine apartheid’, the same logics of coloniality and racial demarcations have replicated themselves in who is entitled to get the vaccine and how property is understood in who owns the rights to produce the vaccine. The right to the patents and the very idea of property itself, as it is produced and reproduced through colonial logics, disregards the entangled humanity which is necessary to produce knowledge and what knowledge is meant for. This and concepts of what can be owned and who can own what, vastly privilege accumulation above life. And in this very conception of property and the inequality that is produced through hierarchising humanity, we see the integral essence of racial capitalism in the emergence and maintenance of our so-called modern, yet vastly unjustly unequal world. According to Cedric Robinson, racial violence is a permanent, rather than anterior, condition of capital accumulation. Life, and all it entails, is thus enclosed, and distorted solely within the circuit of social capital and accumulation – inequalities woven into the fabric of colonial-modernity inevitably reproduce themselves. Consequently, we must understand, as Marchais tell us, that: ‘racial inequality is neither a by-product nor ‘negative externality’ of otherwise inclusive systems, nor a remnant of old days that is dissipating with time and increased awareness. It is resource, or a technology, on which institutions and organisations rely to achieve production…’ 

Therefore, the fact that the ‘vaccine apartheid’ exists in our times, reproduces ‘a global hierarchy of superiority and inferiority along the line of the human…’ This lets us know whose lives matter and whose labour and land can be appropriated for the purposes of accumulation of capital. It lets us know whose lives are disposable. Achille Mbembe in his definition of necropolitics describes the use of social and political power to dictate how ‘some may live and some must die’. In essence, power [read here as capital – its accumulation and dispossession] orders the world, relying on its sovereign right to expose marked Others to death. In the demarcation of who may live and who must die in service of this binary world that we have created, Grosfoguel’s ‘below the line of the human’ is reproduced and Locke’s logics of improvement are replicated. For there to be justice in the world, we must understand our present time and conditions as epistemically and materially shaped by the histories of property and the marking of human bodies as ‘may live/must die.’  We need to revisit how we have abstracted property through appropriation and dispossession and the material as well as dehumanising consequences that this process has had in producing sharp planetary divides. This is vital if we wish to find a way out of this necropolitical death-scape in which we find ourselves. Because if we continue to reproduce logics along the abyssal line of who may live and who must die in service of this world, there will come a time when all will be cast be beneath this abyssal line, and all – all life, all nature, all the earth – will become ‘must die.’  

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